Banding station highlights are watching you

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Northern Mockingbird

When we catch a bird at the banding station, we look it over—and the bird eyeballs us right back.

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The pale eyes mean this Bushtit is female.

They watch us as we extract them from the net, as we prepare their leg band, as we measure their wing. Sometimes they try to bite us, but mostly they just watch.

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House Finch

Most birds have deep brown eyes that look black from a distance.

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Black Phoebe

In some birds, the eye color changes over time. Juvenile Northern Mockingbirds have grey-olive eyes:

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Northern Mockingbird (juvenile)

Older Northern Mockingbirds have yellow-orange eyes—usually. In 1973 Erma J. Fisk noted that she had seen, at her banding station, adults with the following eye colors: “yellow-green, orange-green, orange-brown, dirty yellow, dirty orange, clear yellow, clear orange.”

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Northern Mockingbird (adult)

Juvenile Spotted Towhees begin with greyish-brown irises in the fall, and their eyes slowly change so that by May, they have the bright red irises of adults.

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Spotted Towhee (juvenile, eye transitioning to red)

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Spotted Towhee (adult)

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Yeah I’m a handsome bird all right.

Bushtits also all start with brown eyes, but the males keep those dark peepers for their entire lives. The females’ irises fade to a striking pale yellow.

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A female Bushtit whose iris is in the process of changing from dark to light.

The appearance of a bird’s eye depends not just on the eye, but also on the feathers around the eye. Tiny tuft-like feathers form a ring around the eye:

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California Towhee

Some birds accentuate the eye by having those feathers be a different color—an eye-ring—or with other striking facial markings.

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American Robin

Others seem to want to hide their eyes.

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Male Common Yellowthroat

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Aha, there’s that eye.

And others… wait, hang on. That’s not a bird.

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But my eyesssss are pretty too!

Okay, garter snake from the banding station. You have pretty eyes too.

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Yesssssssss I do.

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3 thoughts on “Banding station highlights are watching you

  1. Interesting to see all the different beak shapes so close up, too! Isn’t banding season over for the winter, or do you band all year?

    • We’re in the Bay Area, with a Mediterranean climate, so it’s warm enough for us to band year-round. We do occasionally not band due to cold spells or (more often) due to flooding from rain in the winter.

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